Scholarship Restructuring at SIPA

Illustration by Alessandra Felloni

Jennifer Shea | SIPA Class of 2017 | April 16, 2017

Over the past year SIPA’s administration has quietly restructured the process by which it grants second-year tuition assistance, eliminating the controversial condition that requires students to work for the University if granted second-year scholarships.

The administration announced the aid change, which took effect with the entering January 2017 class, in a memo posted to SIPA’s website but not delivered to the student body. Under the new structure, second-year scholarship aid will be “unbundled” from assistantship positions which will be compensated with increased salary payments beginning in Fall 2018. The salary ranges for assistantships will increase from $1300-$5000 to between $3000 and $12000.

SIPA currently grants tuition awards to students in two forms: scholarships, which are tuition credits granted prior to a student’s first year based on the strength of their application, and assistantships, a hybrid award of tuition credits and salary payments received in exchange for University teaching or administrative work.

According to 2015-6 administration data SIPA grants roughly 34% of first-years and 64% of second-years some amount of financial aid.

The move is welcome a change for SIPA students who have expressed frustration with the combined scholarship-assistant program’s lack of transparency, an issue the memo cites as the impetus for the change. Lydia Bassaly SIPA ‘17, who last year formally requested the school make the process more transparent and add need-based considerations to the assistantship application process.

“I was upset with the way the process played out, it just wasn’t clear” said Bassaly. “For example, during our first semester, we were told the grade point threshold for the program was 3.4. Then, right before the application process opened, they lowered it to 3.0, which is lower than the median SIPA grade. They told us it would be merit-based so I worked really hard to maintain a high GPA, to get into that qualifying group, and it didn’t matter.”

The school hopes the new process, which will allocate all scholarships during the first year admissions cycle, will reduce some of students’ confusion according to Senior Associate Dean Urbano Garza. SIPA maintains the dollar amount of scholarships awarded to students will not change though the school stated its financial aid strategy will remain merit-based.

Merit vs. Need-Based Financial Aid

This is a problem for Damian Fagon SIPA ’17, one of eight students leading a campaign to establish need-based financial aid programs for prospective SIPA students. “We would like funding to be at least 80/20, merit-based to need-based aid. Right now its 100/0,” says Fagon, pointing out that of Columbia’s 20 schools, SIPA is one of only two that does not offer need-based financial aid.

A major concern for the need-based campaign is the professional and education experiences SIPA prioritizes in prospective students, most of which are characteristic of middle to upper-class educations. Applicants who can demonstrate overseas travel, foreign education, foreign language training or unpaid, yet prestigious, internships on top of academic achievement are highly coveted by SIPA and other Ivy League policy schools.

By prioritizing privileged experiences, Fagon insists, SIPA’s policies create a student body that lacks class diversity. According to informal research conducted by Fagon’s group, SIPA’s student body demographics bear out this theory.

“A majority of SIPA students represent upper middle class backgrounds” says Fagon. “[SIPA’s new scholarship process] is good because it separates scholarship aid from the assistantship program but it won’t address the socio-economic bias of SIPA’s aid program. Both American and international students from underprivileged backgrounds are underrepresented at SIPA. This won’t change that.”

 Need-based Aid Campaign

Since Fall 2016, Fagon’s group has petitioned the Dean’s Office to incorporated need-based considerations into SIPA’s financial aid program. The school initially cited both complications in assessing the financial need of international students as well as the school’s concerns about maintaining its competitive advantage over peer institutions as reasons for not considering the financial need of prospective students.

Regarding the difficulties in developing need-based metrics applicable to both domestic and international students, Financial Aid Office representative David Sheridan said, “[need-based aid] raises some issues because we work with students from all over the world who have different types of currencies, different financial resources and standards of livings. American students can just file the FAFSA; that really can’t be used for international students.”

Fagon, though, does not believe logistics are a sufficient reason to abandon the need-based aid concept. “The other Columbia schools figure it out somehow. And so do our peer institutions. It will be difficult but it’s not impossible.”

More concerning to the need-based aid campaign, though, is the priority the school places on merit metrics even after applicants are admitted into SIPA, an issue that attacks the heart of SIPA’s competitive financial aid strategy.

Says Fagon, “SIPA competes for prospective students with other policy schools like [Harvard’s] Kennedy [School] and Georgetown [‘s School of Foreign Service]. They want to recruit the most sought-after students, but policy schools don’t receive as many applications as, say, business or law schools do. SIPA uses tuition discounts to get the most marketable admitted students to choose Columbia over its competitors.”

Fagon believes that using scholarships as incentive devices to undercut competitor institutions rather than to open educational opportunities to qualified but financially-challenged students violates the spirit of academic financial aid.

The need-based campaign believes it has found a relatively simple fix. It is prior to the secondary assessment of merit, the awarding of tuition assistance to the most sought-after admitted students, that the campaign sees an opportunity to incorporate need-based scholarships. “If a student receives admission to SIPA, they have already established merit and should therefore qualify for need-based aid considerations,” the campaign stated in an open letter to TMP.

SIPA administration disagrees. According to Senior Associate Dean James Parenti, “it is critical that we always focus initially on merit because merit is what is key to ensuring that the degree … will retain value in the market place when … [students] leave SIPA.”

Although the campaign and the school’s priorities differ, the campaign’s efforts have not fallen on deaf ears. During SIPA’s annual town tall held Thursday April 5th, Dean Merit Janow announced the creation in 2018 of a one-year pilot program “to open limited amounts of scholarship awards to prospective domestic and international students with demonstrated financial need.” Both the school and the campaign acknowledged the pilot is a step in the right direction but recognize the issues addressed above have yet to be resolved.

 Assistantships to Continue Without Need Considerations

As the scholarship debate continues, Lydia Bassaly sees direct parallels between the issues raised by the need-based campaign and her experience with the assistantship selection process, which will remain unchanged through the 2018-9 academic year.

Bassaly, who received an administrative Department Research Assistant position during last year’s Spring application process, says many of the same issues that plague the scholarship allocation process also affect the assistantship selection process. “[The administration] says the process is merit-based, which to me means the students who perform the best academically will get the positions, but that’s not true.”

Bassaly believes the school needs to better emphasize which skills are required to land one of the coveted positions. “It’s not a merit-based competition,” she says. “It’s a social skills-based competition. It’s all about interacting with the professor and the current assistants. That’s what they don’t tell you. Your grades are a very tiny piece; they only qualify you. They don’t make you competitive once you’re in the pool.”

SIPA Adjunct Professor Liza Featherstone suggests there could be a larger socioeconomic bias in programs like SIPA’s assistantship process that emphasize pre-existing mentor-networking skills. “I always teach my students, ‘organize the adults in your life into mentoring” says Featherstone who has taught students from diverse class backgrounds at Columbia, CUNY and NYU.

“I find that students who graduate from elite universities or who come from privileged backgrounds are taught from a young age to identify powerful adults around them and use them to their advantage,” whereas students from middle to lower class background, who don’t have ready access to influential individuals, aren’t necessarily taught this.

Thus, basing an education award on a skill that is particularly emphasized in elite institutions and circles has the potential to disadvantage students who may not have learned this skill simply because of their class status.

Bassaly also points out that through the assistantship process, students who did not receive merit-based financial aid upon admission are again forced to compete with those who did. “Students who are already funded are competing for the same positions as the rest of us. Those students have already ‘won’, in a sense, and we’re competing against them again? The school is giving those who already have privilege and advantage even more resources to grow.”

Bassaly recognizes the process can never be 100% fair and will always leave some students without funding but, like Fagon, she believes SIPA should not be doubly rewarding privilege. “The process is perpetuating inequality, that’s the reason I originally contacted the administration. We’re at a policy school that is supposed to be preparing us for jobs combating global inequality and our school’s processes are feeding into it.”

Unionization Impacts

While students like Bassaly and Fagon continue to press the school for need-based considerations, developments outside SIPA could render the conversation moot.
Columbia’s graduate workers union, Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers Local 2110, voted to unionize last December after the National Labor Relations Board granted the organization unionization rights in August 2016. Columbia University is currently appealing the election results. If the NLRB rejects the school’s appeals and certifies the election, 209 of SIPA’s 350 assistantships position could be unionized.

This is potentially significant for SIPA’s aid and assistantship process because, under the current structure, SIPA would be required to grant its assistants the same financial benefits awarded other graduate assistants, a requirement that could consume most of SIPA’s allocated scholarship funds.

In general meeting held Thursday March 30th, GWC released an un-ratified draft of the bargaining demands it hopes to present to the University should NLRB rule in its favor. The union is calling for full tuition and fee waivers plus an annual stipend of at least $30000 for covered graduate workers.

If the union achieves this demand, under the existing assistantship structure, unionization could cost SIPA as much as $9.3 million per year in second-year tuition waivers and stipends, a $4.8 million increase over its current assistantship expenses, according to calculations generated from administration-provided data. SIPA’s 2014-5 annual report states the school expensed $12 million in total scholarships and stipends for both first and second years.

It is unclear if the school could raise the additional funds to cover costs incurred by unionization or whether SIPA would be forced to restructure the assistantship and/or scholarship program again to accommodate the increased expenses. In a statement to TMP, Dean Parenti said the school could not comment on the impacts of unionization on the assistantship process while the NLRB consideration is underway.

Regardless of what causes the changes, be it SIPA’s own attempts to improve its financial aid processes, student-initiated need-based aid considerations or the potential unionization of SIPA assistants, the 2018-2019 academic year promises to bring substantial changes to the financial situations of both SIPA and its students.